Warning: This is a LONG post!
After we completed the Gambler 500-Illinois last year, my buddy and co-pilot Bill (aka Steve, aka Guillermo, aka Mr. Love … he’s a man of many nicknames) suggested we do next year’s Gambler on scooters. To be perfectly honest, I shit all over that idea. That was the dumbest thing I had ever heard come out of his mouth … except for his wedding vows … HEYOOO!! Now to be fair to me, when he made the suggestion, he wanted to do it on 50cc scooters. 500 miles, in one weekend, on vehicles that can’t hardly top 40 if you throw them off the top of a building.
Over time though, I softened to the idea, provided we obtain bigger scooters. So we did. We each bought a janky Honda Helix. Mine, while more complete, turned out to be jankier. Ultimately, life happened, and we were unable to get mine going properly in time for the Gambler. So, my Yamaha Zuma 125 got drafted. Is it a cheap and janky vehicle? No. Can it do 55mph? No again. But it was a scooter, and it would move fast enough to make this trip conceivable. As for Bill’s Helix, it was missing most of the bodywork, and it required occasional jiggling of wires to make it start. When it was running though, it seemed to run well, and it made really good power. The longest test ride he took was the six-mile or so ride from where he purchased it to my house, but this was the Gambler 500 afterall. We decided to send them.
Friday night we loaded everything up, strapped the scooters to Bill’s trailer, and I crashed on Bill’s couch. After a hardy not quite two hours sleep, it was time to hit it. I loaded all my stuff into the scooter’s storage bin, and attempted to roust Bill, to limited success. I decided I would make a quick run for coffee while Bill got up and ready. He doesn’t drink coffee, and coffee was out of the way anyways. With my hot and delicious caffeine acquired, I circled back to Bill’s and scooped him up, then we hit the road. We made it all the way to the first stop sign … about 150 feet away ... and my brake pedal hit the floor. Bill got out and confirmed that a brake line had indeed blown. Typical GMT-800 in the rust belt stuff. I had considered having all the lines replaced last year as preventative maintenance, but didn’t. My bad. Luckily I made that extra trip for coffee, or it would’ve blown while towing on the interstate. Even more lucky, it didn’t happen with my kids in the vehicle.
We transferred the stuff and the trailer over to Bill’s somewhat rusty old ‘95 Ram, and took back off. We were not going to let a blown brake line screw up our gamblin’! The starting point was JC Whitney’s store/warehouse in LaSalle, IL. Once there, we met up with our own Miss Mercedes, as well as lapsed Opponaught Birddog. Merc regrettably informed us that the last minute campground thrash to finish her Chuckus (Chinesium Ruckus clone) had not gone well, so she was out. I told her to jump in that Smart of hers and send it. She did! Apparently she had a good time, but I never saw her again. Birddog had come to be the support truck for our shenanigans, with his 300k+ mile GMT-800 Suburban. We considered hitching Bill’s trailer to Birddogs’s Sub just in case, but decided to ABG instead (always be gamblin’).
Once we received the run sheet, a list of GPS coordinates and hints in the order we should hit them, it was time to strategize. The first stop was a nearby offroad park, but we decided there wasn’t much point in taking a Honda Helix to an offroad park, and Birddog wasn’t about it kill his DD there, so we opted to skip that and jump to the next one. We knew we’d be traveling slower than the rest of the group, given the Zuma’s top speed of about 50mph, so we figured getting out ahead and letting the others catch us through the day would be a good idea.
First problem, it was COLD! When we set off in the morning, it was in the 40’s, it was damp, and the sun was shrouded in clouds I’m a fellow with a lot of insulation, and I was hurtin’. Bill is a skinny little snot, so he was in actual pain. But scooting is undeniably, unrelentingly fun, and the checkpoints were taking us to some gloriously fun country roads. Illinois isn’t exactly known for great driving roads, but if you hit the country near the rivers, there are some really great roads to be had. This was going to be a great day.
Second problem, within the first hour Bill overcooked it in a downhill, left-hand corner. Luckily there was a few feet of soft grassy ditch, before the trees. Both he and his Helix were no worse for wear. Onward we pressed, over the Illinois river and into the tiny town of Henry. Lemme tell you, crossing a narrow truss bridge a hundred or so feet in the air, feet from an oncoming dump truck, is quite exhilarating! No poo came out, so I had that going for me, which was nice. Of all the things to find in Henry, we found a torpedo. I did not see that coming.
The next coordinate was labeled kitty kat, and there we found a Caterpillar facility. CAT is probably the biggest employer in the Peoria area, so we should’ve seen that coming. From there we rode through the beautiful views of Peoria Heights, before descending, quite literally through the slums of Peoria. I figured things were about to get dicey when we passed “Richard Pryor Parkway.” Richard Pryor, if you didn’t know, grew up in a whorehouse in the slums of Peoria. Yes, those are a thing. I’m damn glad it was daytime, and even more glad we didn’t have any breakdowns there. I hope to go there, never again.
Unfortunately, the rest of the day’s checkpoints had us traveling on main routes. This is less than optimal on a 125cc scooter. We peeled off in the town of Pekin for a pretty good lunch of pork tenderloin sandwiches, before heading back to the checkpoints. It was at this point that we finally started seeing some other gamblers. Thankfully, sometime after lunch, the sun finally broke through the clouds, and the temperature warmed up not so much that we started peeling layers, but enough that we became comfortable. We did see some cool things; a train museum, an old Texaco station, a Howitzer, some cool gravel roads in a nature preserve, and near that we found a crazy looking building that turned out to be the Dickson Mounds Museum (which, strangely, was right near another checkpoint, but not on the list). We also finally started seeing some other gamblers.
Traveling almost all on the main routes though, was really not fun on the scooters. For one, it was boring, and for another thing, we were really just too slow for them. I was incredibly thankful to have Birddog in his Suburban guarding our butts from getting run over. There were some angry people passing us, although one smiling woman in the passenger seat of an F-150 that was passing us, decided that was a great photo opp. I waved to her. At one point during all this main route driving, both Birdog and I realized we were just about out of gas. As we were making a break as fast as we could to fuel up, we came to a split. Take a left and hope we could make it 11 miles to a town we knew had gas, or go straight and go to another town 3 miles away and hope they have gas. I made the split second decision, I thought I could make it 3 miles, I wasn’t confident we make it 11 miles, but I knew if the close town didn’t have gas, there was no way I’d make it to the far town. Boy lemme tell you, that last big hill coming into Lewistown had me nervous! But the little Zuma kept chugging, and the sweet relief of spotting a Casey’s General Store was hugely palpable. I put 1.35 gallons into my 1.4 gallon tank, and Birddog’s Suburban had started sputtering rounding the last corner. Close one!
The last waypoint we made it to that day, was the old Texaco station in the tiny and remote river town of Beardstown. The sun was starting to get low, and we really didn’t want to be traveling much at night. The official overnight location was a campground in Taylorville, about 30 miles southeast of Springfield. We had planned to skip camping and partying in favor of getting actual rest in a motel room for the night. We made a beeline for Springfield. In an attempt to get more speed, Bill and I tried switching scooters. He’s much lighter than I am, so we hoped putting him on the Zuma would let us travel at 55, because the Helix had plenty of power to haul my fat butt at highway speeds.
Much to my surprise, I found the Helix’s riding position to be wildly uncomfortable. The switch only gained us maybe 2mph. While Bill was lighter, the real issue is that the Zuma just isn’t geared to go any faster. Rather, it’s geared to be quick off the line around town. Which makes sense, given that is where it’s designed to be ridden. Bill pulled off after 20 or so miles, and asked how the speed was. Since we hadn’t gained much, we switched back. We both found our own scooters to be significantly more comfortable.
We made it to Springfield by sunset, and we decided to fuel up and press on for Taylorville while we were both feeling good, and take advantage of the little glowing daylight was left. We pulled off just outside of Springfield when we spotted a couple other Gamblers on the side of the road. They assured us they were fine, so we pressed on. Darkness descended about halfway there, but we pushed on towards the Super 8 in Taylorville. Bill missed a turn to the motel, and I guess he didn’t hear all my honking. Birddog and I made the turn, but then promptly blew past the motel. We circled back around, and I pulled over where the map told me the motel was. We had called ahead, so we knew it was open, but we couldn’t see it. It was then that we realized we were parked right in front of the sign, but the sign was off. The motel was up a hill, and while all the outside lights were off, the front office lights were on, and there was a car parked there.
Skeptical, I rode up the hill to see if this place was really there and open, and Birddog stayed at the bottom to wait for Bill. I crossed my fingers that my skin wasn’t about to get peeled, but I was greeted by a very friendly fellow when I walked in. I told him that all his outside lights were off, and we’d had a hell of a time finding the place. To which he replied, “Oh yeah, they’re on a timer, they’ll go on soon.”
OOOOOKKKKKK, I told him I’d be right back, and went back down the hill to confer with Birddog about what to do to find Bill. Just as I got back, a friendly Taylorville police officer pulled in, with Bill following behind him. The officer had a hard time finding the place too, with the lights off and all. As we were talking to the amused officer about what the Gambler 500 was, the outside lights finally came on. Just then a caravan of gamblers pulled in. We said goodbye to the nice officer, and went up to get our rooms. Apparently the campground had decided to charge $30 a person, instead of $30 per carload. They had decided to eff that noise, and spend like $14 more and get a warm bed to sleep in. While the rooms weren’t awesome, they were a lot better than we were all expecting, given the overall appearance of the place on the outside.
We put our stuff in the rooms, and then piled into the Suburban to go find dinner. Bill and I were so tired by that point, that the idea of riding into town was a total non-starter. We found a local restaurant, and had a decidedly mediocre breakfast for dinner, then went back to the motel. Bill showered, I collapsed from exhaustion. My body was actually beginning to shake. The other gamblers in the rooms next to us had set up a grill and were outside having a good time (they had planned to camp after-all). I remember thinking, “I hope they don’t keep me awake,” but as soon as I finished that thought, I was dead to the world until morning.
The next morning was nothing short of gorgeous. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and the road was welcoming. We realized we had focused too much on the checkpoints the day before. We had loved the country roads in the morning, but hated the main routes in the afternoon. The day’s route was to take us through several spots, and over into Indiana to another offroad park. We decided we were going to ignore the routing waypoints, and take random country roads to Arcola, a little town south of Champaign where there was some sort of Hippie memorial. From there, instead of the offroad park, we wanted to head to a little dive bar in Earl Park, IN where Bill and I stop in every year on the way to the Indy 500, to get the best pork tenderloin sandwiches we’ve ever had.
We definitely spent too much time hanging out and shooting the breeze in the morning. Despite getting up at 7:00, we didn’t roll out until 9:00. We picked the first road east out of town, and juked around on glorious random country roads. Paved, dirt, gravel, oil and chip, curves and dips, galore. We made another stop to put gas in the little tank of the Zuma in the little town of Bethany, and headed out for more random country roads. We finally pulled into Arcola and found the Hippie Memorial at 11:00. It was actually kind of cool, and Birddog found that he had known the particular guy it was dedicated to. He left a souvenir behind. While we were there, a bunch of fellow gamblers pulled it. We hung out and socialized while they were all there, something that we didn’t get to do much being on scooters. When the rest of them took off, it was time to face reality. JC Whitney wanted us all out of there by 5:00 that evening. There was no possible way we could make it into Indiana, have lunch, and then get all the way back to the starting point. We weren’t sure how anybody in cars were supposed to do that either, but it was simply not possible on scooters.
Undeterred, we pointed north on the first random country road out of town. We began jogging mostly north, and a bit west towards the town of Mohamet. I knew Mohamet was a big enough town to have a real restaurant for lunch, as I had done an architecture project in college on redeveloping the area south of its downtown. This was another great ride. The weather was glorious, the roads were fun, and some of the sights were interesting. We found this cool looking catholic church in the middle of nowhere.
Once in Mohamet, we found a promising looking restaurant, and found a spot to park next to a bunch of Harleys. Hopefully they had a good laugh about that, because they were gone when we were finished with lunch. They didn’t push our scooters over or anything, so they couldn’t have been too upset :). We topped off with gas, and set off again on more random country roads to the northwest. We had about 100 miles to go, and the town of Pontiac was roughly in the middle, so we aimed for that as a final refueling stop for my Zuma.
After Pontiac, we headed for Ottawa. Some clouds had come in by then, but the skies seemed favorable in the direction we were headed. I knew of a great road between Ottawa and Uttica, which would get us nearly to the end. First though, more random country roads, and boy did we find some good ones. I particularly enjoyed the gravel roads. Bill had to go slow and easy through them, as his highway cruiser’s front tire did not care for the loose stuff. I always tore off into the lead on the gravel roads. The Zuma was absolutely the wrong tool for the job on 95% of the roads we were riding, but when we hit those gravel roads, suddenly the Zuma became absolutely the right tool for the job. We were in the home stretch when we came to a gorgeous set of sweeping curves made of lovely pavement. That’s when Bill’s eyes got too big for his stomach, and his Helix washed out from under him and he low-sided across the road and into the ditch.
Bill’s jeans and shirts were torn, his arm and elbow were cut up, and his cell phone screen was smashed to hell, but he was otherwise OK. He managed to keep his head off of the pavement, and earned himself yet another nickname, Crash. We pushed the Helix up out of the ditch, and it fired back up without too much trouble. It brought some farm field back up with it, and the mirror was messed up, but it was still rideable. Onward we pressed. It was time to wrap this sucker up.
We hit route 71 in Ottawa for the final fun road. The road was indeed great, but we got totally c-blocked by a silver Ford Edge who took the curves slower than when I had towed my big camper through there. In hindsight, we should’ve tried to pass him, but we were tired and sore and just wanted to go home at this point. By this time the sun was again behind some clouds, and the temperature was dropping. I was chilly, but we were so close I wasn’t about to stop.
We finally rolled in at about quarter until six, having ridden exactly 492 miles in the last 35 hours. There were a few other gamblers still rolling in, but most were gone. We loaded the scooters, enjoyed a little food and some beverages, and parted ways with Birddog to head back to Bill’s. We still had to deal with getting AAA to tow my truck back home. We called on the way back, hoping we could get a truck there not too long after I arrived, but the phone call took so long, we were pulling up to Bill’s place when they finally had the tow assigned to a company. They gave me a 1-hour wait time, which was immediately pushed back 15 minutes. Towards the end of that time, according to the tracker AAA provides, the tow truck still hadn’t moved. I called back, and was told 45 more minutes. At that point I was beginning to get upset, I was tired, I was just done. That’s when Bill offered me his extra car to go home, and he’d toss the driver the keys whenever the guy finally arrived. I wanted to hug the man, I was so relieved. The tow truck driver finally arrived almost an hour after I left.
I confirmed Monday morning that my truck had indeed arrived at my favorite local independent mechanic (I don’t have time to deal with this one myself). I left a note to tell him what happened, and what needed to be repaired, and headed to work in Bill’s rather clean pale blue ‘03 Grand Marquis. It reminds me so much of driving the Roadmaster. I want a proper land yacht again! The truck will be finished up this afternoon, so tonight I’m going to bring Bill’s panther back to him, and ride my scooter the 30 miles or so back home. I never would’ve done that before, but after this weekend … that’s nothing!
EDIT: A lot of my pictures got kinja’d. I’m just going to put them into replies.